From the 11th – 16th Centuries AD, Barcelona was ruled by Counts who were the representatives of the Court of Aragon in Catalonia. It was during this time that the feudal system of government was established (with church and nobility ruling over the peasantry), and the Generalitat de Catalunya (governing institution of Catalonia) was first formed. The city of Barcelona grew wealthy on trade and seafaring, and the Catalan Gothic style of architecture was developed to show off this wealth in the building of church and state institutions. Much of the medieval city is visible today, and a guide to some of the major sites is provided below.
The medieval city
With the expansion brought about by trade in the Mediterranean came a rapid increase in the city’s population. New settlements grew up outside the Roman Walls, and these were in turn incorporated into the medieval city. A new medieval wall was eventually built for defensive purposes, encompassing a far larger area than that of Roman Barcino.
The modern-day Plaça del Rei (Plaza of the King) was originally the Plaça al Palau (Plaza of the Palace). The first palace on this site was the Palace of the Counts, which was built on the foundations of a Visigothic palace and episcopal complex, the remains of which can be seen in the MUHBA site located here. King Jaume I undertook major improvement works and created the Great Royal Palace, later becoming the Palace of Santa Eulàlia. The MUHBA site is housed in this palace, which has seen many changes over the centuries.The Tinell Hall and Chapel of St Agatha on the first floor of the museum belong to the medieval period. These buildings were constructed in the 14th Century, and are fine examples of the Catalan Gothic architectural style.
The Museu Picasso is housed in a series of medieval palaces on Montcada street, which itself dates back to the 14th Century. These have undergone a number of renovations, but it is still possible to see original Gothic features such as the central courtyard of the Palau Aguilar, or the medieval ceilings preserved in the Palau Meca.
The governing institutions of the city were (and are once again today) housed in the Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya in the Plaça Sant Jaume. The original building dates from the 15th Century, but it underwent many alterations in the 17th and 18th Centuries, in order to fulfill its function as the seat of Catalan government. The inner courtyard of the building dates from the Gothic period and has a characteristic gallery with pointed arches.
The Royal Shipyards, or Drassanes Reials, were originally constructed during the medieval period, although the building we see today (which houses the Museum Marítim) dates from the 16th Century. The two fortified towers in the grounds of the museum belong to the original 13th-Century royal shipyard.
Catalan Gothic religious buildings
The city’s cathedral and several of its churches and monasteries are true jewels of the Catalan Gothic style. Despite its appearance, the main facade of Barcelona’s cathedral was in fact completed in 1913. In order to see the La Catedral in all its medieval splendour, it is necessary to enter the building, and wander the cloisters housing the 13 geese sacred to Santa Eulàlia. Here, the ancient features of the building can be viewed without interruption by modern additions.
The basilica of Santa Maria del Mar (see Featured Image, above) is an archetypal example of Catalan Gothic. Despite its foreboding outward appearance, the interior is suffused with gentleness and light. In the forest of columns reaching for the heavens, we can see perhaps how Gaudí found inspiration for the interior of the Sagrada Família. The walls are bare (façades having been damaged by fire during the Civil War in 1936), allowing the pure beauty of the architecture to shine through. Artificial light is kept to a minimum, therefore to step into the church is almost to be transported back to medieval times through the candlelit aisles. It is free to visit, and highly recommended.
Another beautiful church belonging to this period is Santa Maria del Pi (‘St Mary of the Pine Tree’). It was built between 1319 and 1391. Its most notable features include the octagonal bell tower, and stunning rose window (this had to be replaced after it was damaged by fire during the Civil War, but it is a faithful replica of the original). There is a €4 charge for entry, and for a further fee it is also possible to visit the bell tower.
Two of the oldest religious buildings belonging to this period are the Monastery of Sant Pau del Camp (Carrer de Sant Pau 101, open 10am-1:30pm and 4pm-7:30pm Monday-Saturday, entry €3) and the Church of Sant Pere de les Puelles (Carrer Luís el Piadós 1; open 9am – 1pm and 5pm-7:45pm Monday-Friday; 9am-1pm and 4:30pm-6pm Saturday and 11am – 1:15pm Sunday).
As you can see, there is much of medieval Barcelona to be discovered in the modern city. Travel a little further out of town and you may visit the magnificent Monastir de Pedrables, which is truly evocative of the medieval period, and another stunning example of the Catalan Gothic style.